A Strike against Sexual Harassment

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

UPDATE, Jan. 8, 2022: The student workers at Columbia have now their strike. They stayed out for ten weeks and they did not buckle. The dispute was very hard fought because the management desperately did not want to concede arbitration in disputes over sexual harassment and racial discrimination. But the students refused to give in. This article, first published in November, 2021, explains why that victory over how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace is important for feminists and trade unions around the world.

This is what we wrote in November, 2021:

In the spring of 2021, graduate student teaching assistants and researchers at Columbia University in New York went on strike for the first time to win proper pay and conditions. But they were also on strike for fair arbitration of grievances over sexual harassment. And their strategy on that issue has important implications for trade unionists and feminists all over the world – and for activists on the climate and other issues.

The Columbia Student Workers are now back on the picket line this autumn. It is the second largest strike in the United States at the moment, and one of a growing number of strikes and disputes by student workers at American universities.

The strikers are graduate students who do much of the teaching for a low wage. They have organized themselves into a branch of the United Auto Workers. There are three main issues. One is union recognition. The second is increases in wages, childcare supplements and health insurance. The third is independent arbitration of grievances over sexual harassment and discrimination of all kinds.

The Indypendent reports: Lilian Coie is a 6th year PhD student in Columbia’s neuroscience department and a member of Columbia Union’s bargaining committee. She told The Indy that there’s a little black book that circulates in the neuroscience department that contains a running list of abusive professors and labs to avoid based on claims of harassment or sexual abuse. 

We really need more protection. We need more than little black books to keep people out of abusive labs… [Neutral third-party arbitration] would incentivise Columbia to stop abuse before it starts, and to remedy abuse before it reaches the level of arbitration … Everybody here is fired up because they see exactly what we are fighting for and exactly how reasonable we are.

We wrote about the background to the strike earlier this year. What we said then is worth revisiting:

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